A treasure in the middle of the country

Let me tell you about something located right in the middle of the United States.  We drive over it, fly over it, rail over it.  It supports the breadbasket of America.  I’m talking about the Ogallala Aquifer, perhaps a most central geologic feature of this country.  The Ogallala Aquifer positions itself as one of the main life-giving water sources for the United States of America. 

If you’re like me, you probably wonder, “What does ‘Ogallala’ mean?”    From the Oglala Sioux tribe, it means: “To scatter one’s own.”  The name was eventually applied to the small town in which the Aquifer was discovered – Ogallala, Nebraska. 

It wasn’t just a little water sponge lying beneath a city in Nebraska. As it turned out that tiny aquifer was deep there—over 2,500 feet—and lay under much of the state of Nebraska.  It is an unconfined aquifer, which means the water moves vertically between smaller aquifers.  It spread out from there to the edge of South Dakota, backed up to Wyoming, and then on down to Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and northwestern Texas.

Much like the Great Lakes, the Ogallala is a one-time gift from the ice water of Canada.  This Aquifer is the beneficiary of the northern glaciers years ago.  In the Pliocene epoch about 10 million years back, streams that flowed east from the Rocky Mountains filled the Ogallala Aquifer, which stored it for all these years.  It was a loosely consolidated assortment of clay, silt, sand, and gravel that held water in clean filtered safety. 

The gift has been given and stored in the Ogallala Aquifer.  It holds about as much water as Lake Huron and is the single largest source of water in the High Plains region of the U.S.  The Aquifer does not get replenished sufficiently.  We humans started using the water in the early 1800s, and since then have taken more out than we have put back in. Most water is drawn for irrigation to grow crops and cattle.

Of all the water used from the Aquifer, about 94 percent supports about one/fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle produced in the U.S.  Crops provide grain and hay for confined feeding of cattle and hogs and for dairies.  The big, industrial food companies – e.g. Monsanto and Cahill – have irrigated the crops sucking dry this once-plentiful Aquifer.

If you were living off your savings account and drawing out more than you were putting in, you’d see your bottom line shrinking.  You would recognize the problem.

Once you noticed that your Aquifer account was drying up, you would do one of a couple of things:

                 1) Draw out less water to keep your water capital in the Aquifer;

  2) Try to find more water (melting glacier) to feed the account; or

  3) Deny there is a problem, and keep on withdrawing more water to take care of your life style.   

Right now, Solution 3 seems to be the common one:  Keep your eyes closed to what’s going to happen to the Aquifer as we irrigate more. The capital is there to be used to produce food and profit today.  The gradual desertification of the lower Midwest and Southwest, the droughts that remind the old-timers of the dustbowl days, the ghost towns starting to appear at the edges of the Aquifer, all proclaim the destiny at the center of our country.  Keep the big irrigation circles rich in plants and food. 

Since intense irrigation began in 1940s the Ogallala has declined nearly 100 feet in parts of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.  By 1980s people were noticing the drop in water levels, and so began restricting the use of water, but still averaged about 2.7 feet loss per year.  That’s still more withdrawal than recharge.  The more farmers use drip irrigation the more they continue to reduce the amount of withdrawal every year.

Some agriculture companies and states – Monsanto’s Guthenburg Water Research Center and the state of Nebraska – are starting to implement policies around Solution 1 – conserve the water in the Aquifer.  They are limiting the amount of water used by encouraging farmers to convert center-pivot sprinklers (very wasteful) into drip-irrigation systems (quite expensive to implement).  They are trying to develop seeds/plants that don’t demand as much water.

The only way the Ogallala can be recharged is through rain, or water pumped out for drip-irrigation and going right back into the ground (no exposure to evaporation).  But since there is already very little rain, remember the drought, very little water gets recycled back to the Aquifer. 

So, while the lack of water to recharge the Aquifer is bad enough, now add one more danger to the Aquifer – pollution from oil pipelines running through the Aquifer.  The XL Pipeline runs from Canada into the Dakotas through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.  Any oil leaks from this invasive species could sour the entire Ogallala Aquifer. 

The Ogallala Aquifer is a treasure that many of us take for granted.  We travel over it and see the corn waving in the fields. As we walk along the grocery store aisles, we may have a vague understanding that somewhere out in the Midwest there is a lot of open farmland sitting on an underground network of rivers, streams and tiny currents that supply the water to grow our vegetables and protein.   

What to do?  Once we become aware of this water treasure that works underground and how fast it is diminishing then we need to do as a lot of farmers are doing in Kansas—paying close attention to how they are using their water for irrigation and for drinking.  In other words as we become aware of the national shortage of water, we too must become serious water conservationists.  We are trying to protect and be frugal in our use of this national resource.  All of us are affected by the amount of water left in the Ogallala Aquifer.  We now join the people in Kansas in being careful and using only what’s necessary and trying to be creative in how to best use America’s water.



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